Australian Customs is set to pilot a neutron scanner
facility at Brisbane International Airport to improve the
security of cargo imports.
The scanner uses gamma-ray and neutron radiography to produce
a detailed image of the cargo, which shows the material
composition of items in addition to their size and shape.
"What we're trying to do is combine [x-ray] gamma-ray
radiography with fast neutron radiography," said Dr Nick Cutmore,
program manager at CSIRO Minerals, which developed the
"Neutrons, as they pass through the [cargo] material are
sensitive to the composition of what's in that material. We try
to fuse together these two lots of images to produce an image
that represents both shape, density and composition in bulk
cargo," said Cutmore at a conference in Sydney.
Part of government counter-terrorism measures, the scanner is
more adept than existing technologies at detecting explosives and
related security threats.
Imported air cargo will be loaded onto a U-shaped conveyor
belt housed in a new building at the airport to pass through the
scanner. If any risk reading is detected by the system operators,
the cargo will be unpacked and examined. Otherwise, it will move
onto the container terminal operator.
The construction phase of the project is almost complete,
according to Roxanne Kelley, national manager of research and
development, border compliance and enforcement for Customs.
The following pilot phase will then begin "early next year",
she said, and run for up to 18 months.
"The purpose of the trial is to see how the scanner performs
in a real-time environment… Hopefully by early new year we
will be processing as much cargo as we can through the scanner,"
A scan of a container takes one to two minutes. As the pilot
progresses, more containers will be scanned with the system and
export cargo will be added later.
However, assessing the threat posed by air cargo is not as
simple as just scanning it, according to Cutmore: "This scan and
the scanner is not the solution… You can't just do a scan
and have a computer run over it and say 'that air cargo's good,
this air cargo is bad'; it's not that easy. Air cargo is
"So what we're doing is combining the scan with a whole lot of
other operator tools and manifest information which is part of
the way Customs operates," he said.
Two staff will operate the system, an operator and image
analyst. The image analyst will make risk assessments of cargo
based on image interpretation and other Customs information.
An "extensive" staff training package will be rolled out for
the system, Kelley said.
"We know that the user of this technology is the most critical
link in the chain. So it's how people analyse images and how good
they are at detecting anomalies that is the most critical part of
this," she said.
Once operational, a total of 34 Customs staff will work at the
air cargo section of the airport, on a shift basis, between 5am
and 11pm, seven days per week.
Kelley said the catalyst for the scanner dated back to 2001,
when Customs approached CSIRO to make scanning more efficient:
"We have lots of our regional staff at cargo terminal operators
and depots and they're physically unpacking cargo and putting it
through x-ray machines. So part of our thinking was, is there a
technology solution where we can inspect air cargo, but it's just
as effective for us?"
The federal government has since mandated Customs to inspect
70 percent of air cargo consignments that come into
As part of aviation security initiatives in the 2003/2004
federal budget, Customs received AU$8.4 million to trial CSIRO's
neutron scanning technology.
A government steering committee is meeting monthly to discuss
the progress of the project. It will decide whether to roll out
the scanner around the country once the pilot is complete.